Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1128, 27 December 2012 - 2 January 2013
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1128, 27 December 2012 - 2 January 2013

Ahram Weekly

Split over poll legitimacy

Observers say Egypt’s two-day constitutional referendum was marred with fraud, threatening its legitimacy. But, as Gihan Shahine finds out, many argue the violations were not enough to affect the result

Al-Ahram Weekly

It was almost 5pm at the polling station of Al-Awkaf School for Girls in the Giza governorate, where a short line of women waited quietly to cast their ballot in Egypt’s two-day constitutional referendum that ended Saturday. The judge in charge was keen on making sure the voters’ identification cards matched their names in the electoral lists; that they cast their ballots in total privacy and that they dipped their fingers properly in the ink afterwards.
But that did not seem to be the case in all the 17 governorates which headed to the polls in the second round of Egypt’s vote on a contentious constitution that ultimately received a “yes” vote majority. A coalition of seven human rights organisations said they recorded “massive” electoral violations and fraud which, they say, threatens the legitimacy of the whole process. Yet another coalition of 37 human rights groups who also monitored the polls under the name “Observers for the Protection of the Revolution”, and which deployed 6,000 volunteers to oversee the process nationwide, denied those claims of illegitimacy as “rather politicised”, insisting that the polls were “fair” and that violations were not “systematic or enough to affect the results.”
The supreme judicial committee overseeing the process similarly denied the claims as “untrue”.
Irregularities reported by human rights groups included not enough judiciary supervision, vote rigging, bussing voters to polling stations and attempts by partisans to influence voters as they cast their ballots. There were also reports of banning rival voters from entering polling stations — especially women and Christians — particularly in Upper Egypt governorates which are notorious for sectarian rifts. Observers also alleged that members of the opposition movement including the 6 April movement were assaulted in the second round of vote.
6 April then released a statement charging that five of its members were detained after objecting to the early closure of polling stations. The statement, which also accused Muslim Brotherhood supporters of directing people to vote in favour of the constitution, said that the five were detained upon the request of the judges presiding over the polling stations. “The judges also threatened to set them up by falsely accusing them of assaulting women in the polling station,” the statement said.
The movement alleged that the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist movement which support a “yes” vote, had “committed electoral violations” during the two rounds of voting.  
A coalition of at least seven prominent Egyptian rights groups had earlier urged a re-vote of last week’s first round of the constitutional referendum that they said should be revoked for being immersed in fraud. In its report — entitled “A Mubarak-style referendum” — NGOs say the Muslim Brotherhood was given a free hand to manipulate the vote. Alleged violations similarly included insufficient supervision by judges in 10 out of Egypt’s 27 provinces, and preventing independent monitors from monitoring vote counts. The report also charged that “Muslim Brotherhood loyalists were placed in charge of supervising the vote because of a lack of judges.”
Rights groups told a press conference last week that they received complaints of “individuals falsely identifying themselves as judges, of women prevented from voting and that only members of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood were allowed inside polling stations.” Some polling centres also reportedly opened late and others closed and announced results earlier than scheduled, they said. In the meantime, observers charged that there were intentional delays of the voting process in some polling stations in attempts to suppress votes by those who opposed the draft constitution and who had to wait long hours to cast their votes.
The Observers for the Protection of the Revolution, however, told a press conference on Monday that the violations in the two-day polls were “largely minor”, and that the polls “fairly reflected the will of the voting masses”.
The coalition announced that it will sue the National Salvation Front for having reportedly “spread distorted information about the constitution” in its “unethical and illegal war on the constitution”.
“Claiming that the polls were rigged is total blasphemy,” insisted Hassan Youssef, chairman of Shomoa (Candles) human rights organisation. “Many human rights activists who observed the polls were actually politicised.”
The Muslim Brotherhood’s operation room in the northern Delta governorate of Kafr Al-Sheikh reported that billboards reading “No to the Brotherhood’s Constitution... No Kandahar’s Constitution” were visible in perimeters of polling stations, according to Al-Ahram Arabic-language website. The proximity is not allowed. The Muslim Brotherhood’s official website, Ikhwan Online, similarly reported incidents in Fayoum governorate where judges were allegedly spotted urging a “no” vote to the constitutional referendum.
The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) executive board member Mohamed Gamal Heshmat lashed out at rights groups, writing on the party’s website that they were “falsely creating problems in an attempt to tarnish the image of the referendum”.
Despite charges from the two sides, Zaghloul Al-Balshi, the judge who heads Egypt’s Supreme Elections Committee (SEC), insisted that the vote was “impartial and fair”. He said the SEC received “various allegations, stirring a public uproar” but found that the charges were “not true”.
The opposition argues that a low turnout of around 31 per cent of voters in the two rounds of the referendum — the lowest since the 25 January Revolution — may cast a shadow over the legitimacy of the constitution. The referendum was held against a backdrop of a serious state of polarisation and many argue that the low turnout may reflect public frustration, and perhaps, confusion.
Those who voted in favour of the constitution were mostly members of the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultra-conservative Salafist movement who argue that the constitution paves the way for a democratic state that protects human rights. Those who said “yes” to the constitution were also supporters of Egypt’s first freely-elected president and those who believe that a vote in favour would lead to more economic and political stability.
Those who campaigned for a “no” vote were largely the anti-Morsi camp including the secular and liberal opposition, Copts, and some sects of society who fret that the new constitution would restrict liberties and allow clerics a say over legislation.
A judge who asked to remain anonymous insisted, however, that “the results of the referendum honestly mirrored reality” and that “a 36 per cent ‘no’ vote is in itself is a victory for the opposition and a testimony that the polls were not rigged after all.”
“This is simply people’s opinion,” he said, arguing that reported irregularities “were not enough to affect the result and did not appear to follow a pattern.
“Those who say otherwise may perhaps have hidden agendas since the whole scene is deeply polarised,” he suggested.
Human rights activist Mohamed Zarie, however, insisted that the “lack of judiciary supervision and the obvious lack of transparency would immediately cast doubt on the whole process.”
Zarie said that monitors belonging to civil society groups were largely absent from the scene, they were not allowed to oversee the whole electoral process, and thus cannot give an accurate say on its validity.
“Monitors belonging to civil society were not allowed into polling stations and during vote counting,” Zarie said. Many monitors, according to Zarie, perhaps miscalculated when they did not apply for permits early. “We just did not expect the polls would be held on schedule,” he explained. But many also had a problem with having to deal with the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) which is assigned to issue permits and which includes many members of the Constituent Assembly who drafted the constitution and “thus cannot claim impartiality”. The NCHR is headed by Hossam Al-Ghiriani, chairman of the Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly. That, according to Zarie, resulted in the fact that the majority of the 3,000 local monitoring permits were issued for members of the FJP, who rushed to get the permits a day before the polls started. Civil group monitors, however, were by and large not granted permission, and had to use old permits, which more often than not were not recognised by the supervising judges.
“We were in large part not allowed to spend time inside monitoring stations to know whether the process was carried under full judicial supervision or whether the tally was accurate,” Zarie said.
Zarie said that a number of complaints were filed concerning voter registration irregularities, including listing of dead persons, vote rigging, vote-buying and rotating pre-marked balloting cards.
Bahaaeddin Hassan of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights similarly told a press conference after the first round of polls that numerous irregularities also included allowing “pseudo-judges to resort to violence and thuggery and terrorise voters”.
A large portion of Egypt’s judiciary boycotted the referendum, and according to Hassan, the “Judges Club reportedly observed many non-judges overseeing the vote.”
Suspicious voters complained that the “presumed judge supervising their polling centres refused to show them official documents to certify that they were indeed a judge,” according to a rights group statement.
However, Al-Balshi has repeatedly insisted that judicial supervision of the polls were complete, with 7,000 judges monitoring the polls. Al-Balshi further introduced a detailed list including the names of the judges who oversaw the polls.
The judge who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly on condition of anonymity, however, said almost 90 per cent of members of the Judges Club boycotted the polls; that is, only around 1,200 to 1,500 out of a total of 12,700 agreed to supervise the polls in its first round. That number, however, almost doubled to around 2,400 in the second round when judges found that “compensation was almost five times larger than what they used to take in previous polls,” he said.
However, this insufficiency in the number of judges, especially in the first round of polls, forced the election committee to merge polling stations, which led to complaints of overcrowding and a delay in the polling process that sometimes kept some voters from casting their ballots all together. The judge also explained that some polling stations opened late because the judges in charge suddenly apologised that they would not be able to oversee the electoral process on the same day of the polls and since no substitutes were available on site as was the case in all previous polls, polling stations had to delay opening until the committee provided a substitute.
“Those irregularities, however, were largely misinterpreted by human rights groups as part of a manipulative tactic to suppress votes by the opposition, which was far from the truth,” the judge said.
In the meantime, the judge added, the lack of judges left no other choice for the SEC but to hire members of the State Council, the Administrative Prosecution Authority and the State Litigation Authority to oversee the polls. However, those members are not strictly speaking court judges, but mostly lawyers and prosecutors employed by the government.
The absence of full judicial supervision, said the judge, may have “led to some inaccuracies and lack of organisation, but definitely not to the level of invalidating results”.
“After all, court judges may be more professional and accurate than members of other judicial bodies in handling the balloting process, but not all of them would necessarily have more integrity.”

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